Bryce Harper returns tonight which is gonna be HUGE for the Nats. Look for him to go yard a couple times on whoever Belgium throws out there.
TO THE HOT TAKE CANNON
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
Bryce Harper returns tonight which is gonna be HUGE for the Nats. Look for him to go yard a couple times on whoever Belgium throws out there.
No prediction? You should make predictions. Sportswriting convention demands it.
Typos: Alderwereld -> Alderweireld, hell -> he'll
Altidore is cleared to play apparently ESPN says. Doesn't necessarily mean fit though.
then it's terminal beer shots.
Haven't seen this suggested yet, and I don't know why:
Beasly Besler Gonzo Cameron
...which would allow Fabian Johnson to move up to midfield.
I am in favor of this if it has worked in training.
Johnson NEEDS to be involved on offense for us to be successful; if Cameron can link well outside, I like this idea, and would even consider using a Johnson/Yedlin wing combo.
We need to be aggressive in this match. There is no prize for second place anymore.
But that's a pretty huge tactical shift mid-World Cup. Cameron is a central defender normally but plays right back at Stoke...moving him to the left back position could be disasterous. Likewise, switching Beasley from LB to RB could also be ugly.
I thought the idea - which was tossed around previously as well - was just for Cameron to be right rack, Gonzo and Besler center backs, and Beasley at his left back spot. Then put Johnson on the right side of the midfield to a weapon going forward but not potential defensive liability with Cameron there.
I'd argue that right back may not even be his best position. He played CDM (and even briefly CAM) at Houston before Stoke converted him to a right back full time.
He was MOTM last summer against Panama in Seattle as CDM as well...he looked great.
#5 on Belgium in the picture isJan Vertongen of Tottenham Hotspur, not Vermalen.
This, and his name is also spelled Thomas Vermaelen, with the extra 'e'.
Anyway, I'll take our chances with Belgium over any of the other top seeds. If Kompany can't go, that's a huge swing for the US' odds on pulling out a win.
and here I thought I would be the one to point that out first.
I'm gonna assume it was spellcheck and not user error that corrected "axel witsel" to "Alex", but nonetheless..
Nobody really notices them, most people just drive through. All of their neighbors are more interesting
I'd say the beer and food are better in Belgium than they are in Indiana though, so they make up for the inherent boringness.
I spent a few days in Brussels in January. You're talking Belgian beer, waffles, and chocolates. It was fantastic.
t's a bit less traveled by tourist, but the history and open-ness was nice. I didn't have to wade through several hundred tourists to see the cathedral in town. They have nearly 2 dozen museums that are really cool.
Brussels is the home to the European Union, so it's west side has a bit more modern feel to it, but the downtown/central district was really rather cool.
I hope we beat them tomorrow, but if not I'm gonna support the lambics.
Go Blue beat Waffles
Also how excited are you guys for the Bachelorette in Belgium tonight? I hope she gets rid of Nick personally.
Belgian beer is cloudy and sweet. I don't like their beer. Beat Belgium.
Oh look you've found all of Spurs' highlights for the past decade!
But seriously, he can do that against Cardiff City, bravo, but I'd like to see him try to get fancy in his own third against any World Cup squad.
Belgium reminds me of the movie "In Bruges" and every awful thing Colin Farrell had to say about the place. Great movie. Beat Belgium.
"There's a Christmas tree somewhere in London with a bunch of presents underneath it that'll never be opened. And I thought, if I survive all of this, I'd go to that house, apologize to the mother there, and accept whatever punishment she chose for me. Prison... death... didn't matter. Because at least in prison and at least in death, you know, I wouldn't be in fuckin' Bruges. But then, like a flash, it came to me. And I realized, fuck man, maybe that's what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in fuckin' Bruges. And I really really hoped I wouldn't die. I really really hoped I wouldn't die."
Bradley should not be a lock. He has been atrotious.
Soccer/spelling expert hot takes
I think he'd be better suited for the 60 minute sub to come in after Zusi or someone has ran themselves out to just blaze up and down the field even easier against tired defenders. He just needs to be an earlier sub than he has been thus far.
The Fabian Johnson at midfield with Cameron playing Right Back is a very real option as well if they've worked on that at all thus far. Just no Brad Davis, please.
I much prefer Yedlin as a 2nd half sub when he's going at defenses with tired legs. He lacks the technical ability to keep possession in a tight area, but can out sprint anyone.
Tough to figure out this Belgium side, ton of world class talent that doesn't seem to fit. Also, after the group stage you can make the argument they were in the worst group and didn't dominate by any means.
Especially since this game could very likely go well past 90 minutes. Bring Yedlin in after HT.
What can be done about all this fake injury flopping about crap in football competition?
This has just got to stop, yet after a thousands of years of the sport, fans somehow continue to accept this utter horseshit? WTF? It's not even remotely entertaining. Goddammit, sometimes the faker isn't even touched!
Either add some more refs to the pitch or bring in video replay evidence to shut it down. Otherwise, what's the point of playing the damn game if you can just fake your way into penalties against the other team and steal game momentum on a whim?
This Academy Award business in FIFA, and soccer in general, is complete horseshit. The End.
There are two real reasons why flopping is so prevalent.
1. Set pieces near the box are very valuable, not to even mention penalties. This kind of tactical diving is what you see Robben doing a lot (and I thought he was fouled at the end, though he did exaggerate the contact in search of a call).
2. It's a way to stall momentum and get a rest in what is a very physically exhausting game.
The best way to eliminate it is by the players not putting the ball into touch as a courtesy, and I've seen this a lot in this cup. Increasingly, it seems that teams on a break will finish their offensive move, even if the defense is signalling to put the ball out. When this happens, you'll see guys get up behind the ball and chase if they're not truly hurt.
That said, there's contact that happens on the pitch that truly hurts for a couple minutes. Getting cleated in the foot hurts like crazy, because the upper of soccer cleats are very thin. Getting kicked in the back of the leg or the ankle is similar. But you can work that pain out after a minute. This is stuff that we don't notice in American football because guys go out for a play and then return.
Yeah getting kicked in the legs/feet and stepped on and hacked, basically, hurts a shit load immediately but kinda wears off in a minute or two. So sometimes when these guys are rolling around or seemingly in lots of pain, then get up and play again, it's bc that's the characteristic of the pain and not always bc they're flopping or trying to get a call.
Agreed. Getting cleated can be extremely painful. When it really happens. When it really does happen, and not a toe over toe touch, you're not going to flail your arms back and do a belly flop on the turf from a foot/toe injury. No freaking way.
Somebody grazes the edge/tip of his raised toe and "OMG foul!".
Horseshit to the 11th power.
Meanwhile, real injury: Fractured tibia. Hector Moreno. No belly flopping. No flailing of the arms. His head and eyes directed to the injured appendage. Normal human behavior when injured. Because he's in legitimate freaking pain.
There's really nothing that more referees would do but make more calls than are already made. I think the only way to prevent flopping (and blatantly exaggerating, which I think is just as bad) is to review all falls post game and dish out cards after the game or possibly just suspending them for flopping. As soon as a handful of players are out for important matches, the diving will go way down.
on the pitch should serve a game or two when they haven't been touched. Needs' use of the term (or coining of the phrase) "tactical diving" pretty much sums up how I feel about that aspect of the game.
I watch soccer at the same interval I do speedskating and swimming so mine are not educated eyes. That said, it looked to me that the foul on Nymar in the first game was totally legit in spite of the hilarious flop. Nymar was held up and was going to have a chance to make a move to score. Robben on the other hand was barely touched and had already lost possession. He wasn't a threat to score and the ref gave the Dutch the game.
I think the call you're thinking of in the first game was Fred, not Neymar.
FWIW, I thought Marquez fouled Robben both on his plant foot and his trailing leg, but there's no doubt Robben responded by flopping like a swordfish. I could see not giving the call if the ref judged that Robben had lost control of the ball before the foul, but I do think he was fouled.
It really is an exciting game and the skill level is unbelievable, but the flopping is so off-putting as to make me scream at the TV as if Papa Grande was taking the bump. Have a good day.
Give the officials the right to shoot all severely wounded players right there on the field to put them out of their misery, like the crippled horses they're pretending to be.
Normally I roll my eyes at gratuitous anti-soccer comments, but this was hilarious. Well done, Don.
I've never seen a rugby or Australian rules football player writhe on the ground holding his shin. Hell, when I played soccer that was the point of SHINGUARDS. Bunch of fancy boys. Dempsey breaks his nose and says play on bitches.
Potential small advantage for the US: this is the first game Belgium will have played in the north of Brazil while the US has played all its games there. Temps tomorrow in Recife aren't supposed to be particularly warm, but it looks like the humidity will be high.
The weather forecast for the USA-Belgium match (starts at 5:00 PM local time in Salvador. on Brazil's east coast, south of Recife) is for high humidity, temperatures in the mid to high 70s and increasing chance of rain as the night wears on.
If you've been watching the late afternoon matches, you've probably noticed that they;re being played in night time. Brazil's east coast is in a time zone that's an hour ahead of the USA's East Coast Time; and this is Brazil's winter time, so the sun sets much earlier than it sets in the northern hemisphere at this time of year.
Thanks, don't know where I got the idea the US was playing in Recife again. Point still kind of holds..
The Belgian team has traveled a total of only 1,048 miles between its home base and its match sites (the shortest amount of travel for any World Cup team.) By contrast, the USA has traveled 8,866 miles between its home base and its match sites (the largest amount of travel for any World Cup team.) LINK
That's Vertonghen in the background of the Kompany shot not Vermalen as mentioned.
I really think that the octopus in Germany should be the default prophecy. Plus, I like it when animals make sports predictions.
It's finally here...
I think you're way off in your assesment of Hazard's impact in this World Cup. You say that the goal against Russia was a feed from Hazard, and in general he stepped up at the end of that game to dominate. But in the 2-1 win over Algeria, the winning Mertens blast came from Hazard as well -- "great vision from Hazard to set that up." [CBS] So three Belgium goals before they advanced, two of them via assists from Hazard.
They rested him in the third game, along with Kompany, Witsel, and De Bruyne.
So much for Beckerman being a lock. He won't start today. Cameron moves to MF in his place.